Pius, We Have a Problem

Luke 23:33-43

Today is the last Sunday of the church year, Christ the King Sunday or Reign of Christ Sunday.  This is a relatively new addition to the church calendar and, frankly, not everyone is happy about it.  

In 1925, the world was trying desperately to put itself back together in the aftermath of World War I and it wasn’t going well.  Pope Pius XI was gravely concerned by the growing tide of secularism and ultra-nationalism in Germany, Italy and elsewhere, and the imposition of Communism in Russia.  In response he issued an encyclical called Quas Primas—That Which is First (interestingly, it can also be read as a question, What is First?)—in which he established The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe or, as it came to be commonly known, the Feast of Christ the King.  

Pope Pius was trying to restate and reinforce the idea of the sovereignty of Christ over, well, everything.  He wanted to make it clear that our deepest and most profound allegiance should be to Jesus Christ above and beyond every other allegiance.  But in doing it in this way, was he, maybe, missing the point of what Jesus was actually saying when he talked about the kingdom of God?

The image of Christ as King is problematic for us in a number of ways.  It’s hard for us to relate to even the idea of a king.  There aren’t very many real monarchs left in the world, and most of the ones who are still here wield a power that is primarily symbolic or ceremonial.  As a case in point, after the long reign of Queen Elizabeth, King Charles has now ascended to the throne of Great Britain, but nobody is expecting any significant change in the governance of the United Kingdom as a result because whatever power the throne still has is very strictly circumscribed by a democratic parliament. 

Another problem with the imagery of Christ the King is that the image itself is hopelessly patriarchal and patristic which puts it in stark contrast to the egalitarian vision Jesus was describing when he announced that the basilea of God was within reach.

Basilea.  That’s the Greek word in the gospels that we translate as kingdom.  It’s a word that the empire used to describe the domain of Caesar and also the territory governed by Herod and other client kings.  And even as Jesus was proclaiming the arrival of the basileaof God, it was a word that was both too small and too loaded to really capture the new reality that Jesus was describing.

The word Kingdom implies boundaries. Boundaries imply limitations and location.  You are either inside or outside.  Even the synonyms for kingdom make it sound territorial.  Realm—a royal domain or kingdom; a region, sphere, or domain within which something or someone prevails, or dominates.  Reign—the period during which a sovereign occupies the throne, the territory of royal rule or sovereignty; a dominating power or influence; to have control, rule, or influence.  

The word Kingdom also implies power, usually and especially coercive power.  Constantine and later Christian emperors and kings readily embraced the concept of the Kingdom of Christ because it was an image they could use in exercising their own power.  They could claim that they were appointed by Christ and were ruling under his authority, which meant that they could spin just about anything they did as justifiable because they were acting on Christ’s behalf.  Convert people at the point of the sword or by torture?  No problem.  We’re doing it for Jesus.  

Today, Christian Nationalism and other authoritarian movements appropriate the language of Christ the King to imagine Jesus as a muscular Rambo, kicking tail and taking names. Under the auspices of Christ the King, they want to establish a restrictive theocracy, but in embracing that idea they completely miss the new reality that Jesus was calling us to embrace.

Kingdom, realm, reign, sovereignty—none of these terms are really a good fit for what Jesus was describing when he announced that the basilea tou theou –what we translate as The Kingdom of God—is arriving, is at hand, is within reach. 

George Orwell was a guy who knew a thing or two about language and how we use, abuse, twist and misuse it.  Orwell said, “There is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.”[1]

Christ the King is one of those worn-out metaphors.  We keep using it because we haven’t come up with a better phrase to describe the vision of God that Jesus was proclaiming or a way to describe our belief that God is the ultimate power that moves the universe through love, compassion, creativity, grace and cooperation.  

On the plus side, Christ the King does make us ask ourselves some important questions.  What do we mean when we say that Christ is sovereign?  How do we understand the kingdom of God, the reign of God?  How do we understand the power of God?  How do we understand power in general?  How do we use power?  Do our values reflect the values of empire or the values of Jesus?  What kind of kingdom do we belong to?

The kingdom of God, as Jesus described it, was and is a resistance movement.  To say that Christ is king is a resistance claim.  It is a challenge to the way power is coercively used most of the time in our world.  Jesus is a different kind of king.  The cross is the coronation of Jesus.  He surrenders to the coercive power of empire to show us the greater power of love and nonviolence.

Pontius Pilate understood that Jesus was all about resisting the empire’s coercive power but also the empire’s imagery.  When Pilate asked Jesus straight out, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus simply replied, “You say so.  Those are your words.”[2]  The soldiers crucifying Jesus mocked him saying, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself!” Pilate mocked both Jesus and the Jewish people by having a board nailed above his head with the inscription, “This is the King of the Jews.”  These were people who understood power in only one way.  Control.  Coercion.  Power over.

But the reign of God that Jesus was describing is a cooperative world.  The reign of God doesn’t force itself on anyone or try to control anyone.  Christ, as king, persuades, encourages, nudges and asks us to live up to a vision of our better selves.

 The reign of God is a world where generosity, grace, compassion and mercy prevail.  It is a world driven by and governed by love.  It is a world where everyone’s needs are met and no one goes hungry.  It is a kingdom that transcends every kind of border, boundary and barrier.  It is a world where the only control is self-control.  Its central values are to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. Its only law is love: love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. 

The kingdom that Jesus was describing is a world moving toward the vision of Isaiah when we will beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks, when nation shall not lift up sword against nation nor shall they study war anymore.[3]  The kingdom that Jesus proclaimed is the world where God walks with us as Ezekiel envisioned, a world where God shepherds us, where Christ seeks out the lost and brings back the strays, where through us, Jesus binds up the injured and strengthens the week and feeds us all with justice.[4]

The reign of God is a realm in which the poor are blessed and the hungry are filled and those who mourn are comforted.  It is the world Mary envisioned in the Magnificat when she sang, “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”[5]

Yes, God exercises power.  But not the way we usually think of power. God’s power is all about empowering you.  God is about giving power rather than holding onto it.  God gives power to us so that we can love and care for the world more fully and effectively.  Together.  “The greatest manifestation of the power of God,” said Bishop Yvette Flunder, “comes when we work together to find ways to be together and do justice together and love together and stand together.”  

The kingdom of God is all of us together.

 “Jesus did not establish an institution,” wrote Bishop Michael Curry, “though institutions can serve his cause. He did not organize a political party, though his teachings have a profound impact on politics. Jesus did not even found a religion. No, Jesus began a movement, fueled by his Spirit, a movement whose purpose was and is to change the face of the earth from the nightmare it often is into the dream that God intends.”

Today is Christ the King Sunday.  It is a day when we use the “worn out metaphor” of kingly power to try to open the doors and windows of our hearts, minds and souls to the empowering love of God through Jesus Christ.  It is a day when we acknowledge both that God in Christ is the ultimate power and that we need to redefine how we understand and use power.  It is a day when we are asked to declare that our deepest and most profound allegiance is to Jesus Christ above and beyond every other allegiance.  It is a day that challenges us to walk in the Way of Jesus so that we can help to bring God’s vision of a whole, healthy, loving and cooperative world into reality on earth as it is in heaven.

Today is the day we volunteer to change the face of the earth from the nightmare it often is into the dream that God intends.

[1] Politics and the English Language, 1946. 

[2] Luke 23:3

[3] Isaiah 2:4; Micah 4:3

[4] Ezekiel 34:15-16

[5] Luke 1:46-55

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